Subaru BRZ Review

When was the last time you got up early just to go for a drive?

It’s perhaps something of a romantic notion, setting your alarm for Oh-My-God-o’clock just so you can head out on your favourite stretch of sinuous tarmac and give it the beans before breakfast.

With a Subaru BRZ on your driveway, you might find yourself wanting to do just that.

Developed as part of a joint venture with Toyota that also yielded the GT86, the Subaru BRZ was conceived as a back-to-basics driving machine.  That meant it had to include the classic sports car staples – light weight, rear-wheel drive, a rev-happy engine and a well-balanced chassis.

Power comes from a 2.0-litre flat-four ‘Boxer’ engine, the horizontally-opposed layout allowing its placement low down and far back in the engine bay to keep its weight as close to the centre of gravity as possible.

It’s not exactly bristling with power, its 197bhp arriving at a peaky 7,000rpm with maximum torque of 205Nm emerging from 6,400rpm.  One could say it was ‘just enough.’

It drives the rear wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox (an auto is an option), its 17-inch alloy wheels shod with suspiciously skinny 215/45R17 Michelin Pilot Primacy tyres.  Again, ‘just enough.’

Suspension is fully independent at each corner while braking is taken care of by a rather modest-looking set of discs and calipers.

The interior is equally humble, and while it includes niceties such as automatic headlights, cruise control and keyless entry, sporting fripperies are limited to a set of aluminium pedals and a pair of well-bolstered part-leather seats.

If all of this is beginning to sound a little underwhelming, don’t worry, there is a quite substantial method in this particular brand of madness: light-weight, and balance.

You see, by using an engine with a modest (by today’s standards) amount of power and then hiding that power under the bushel that is the red-line, Subaru’s engineers have forced the driver to engage with the driving experience.

This isn’t one of those cars where you can plant your foot in the carpet and let the engine do the hard work for you.  No, in the BRZ, you have to earn it.

However, once you commit to the job of driving and grab the BRZ by its short and curlies, you’ll discover a car that’s positively aching to entertain.

Push the Boxer power-plant out of its comfort zone and there’s a delicious hard-edged resonance that builds around 4,000rpm.  Extend beyond this and the power continues – linearly – until it’s time to grab another gear.

Here, you’ll discover that the gearbox expects an extra dose of commitment, too.  Shifting through the closely-stacked ratios requires a determined shove across the gate, and although the ‘box never baulks or complains, you have to show the BRZ that you really mean it.

And so it is with the handling.

Those skinny tyres, more commonly found on a Toyota Prius, are there for a reason.

Their modest grip levels will deliver little but understeer if you pile into a roundabout with your foot off the gas.  But, engage with the experience and add a little throttle and the BRZ will oblige by tightening its line.

Give it a little more and the realms of controllable oversteer will open up before you – gradually, and safely.  Indeed, give it a full hoof mid-roundabout and the back will step out easily.  This needn’t induce panic, though, as by default it will all be calmly collected by the Vehicle Stability Control (VSC).

For less experienced drivers, the BRZ serves up an exciting introduction to the world of rear-driven oversteer and tail-slides, and to start with the VSC allows just the briefest of teasers to let you know a whole ‘nother world exists.

But, if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, a quick stab of the VSC Sport button allows you to explore the full depth of the BRZ’s capabilities.

The steering delivers confidence-inspiring levels of information about front-end traction, but the BRZ sends most of its feedback via the seat of your pants.  This Subaru inhabits a world where every corner and roundabout is an opportunity to deploy a dose of opposite-lock, and with such a communicative chassis the degree to which this happens is entirely down to you.

While this may make the BRZ sound like a car for hooligans, the truth is that this isn’t just a tool for misbehaving at roundabouts.  So keenly does it adjust its attitude according to its master’s right foot, and so talkative is the chassis, that even the most ham-fisted of drivers will be able to feel the BRZ’s rear end moving about through a corner.

For the BRZ, we should invent a new word: untenacious.

In any normal car, this would be a recipe for disaster, most likely with your journey ending half way up a lamppost.  The BRZ, however, has been deliberately ‘under-tyred’ so that its available grip combines perfectly with its modest power reserves and light weight to offer a breadth to its performance envelope that is, to our minds, almost unique.

Yes, there are those that insist the BRZ should have grippier tyres or a more powerful engine.  But to change either of those factors is to push the boundaries of its carefully-engineered abilities to a point where licence-losing numbers need to be racked up on the speedo before it can be fully enjoyed.

That would be missing the point: the BRZ is a car that can turn any journey into a grin-inducing thrill-athon, even on today’s congested and camera-infested roads.

The only downside to all of this is fuel economy: the official figures show 36.2mpg on the combined cycle, which is perfectly respectable, and the BRZ will happily cruise along all day in a docile fashion if that’s the mood you’re in.

No, the trouble is, as soon as you arrive at the first corner, you won’t be able to resist sampling that delicious induction roar or the irresistibly exuberant handling.

The Subaru BRZ is the Rowntree’s Fruit Pastille of the car world: just as the famous TV advert declares “I bet you can’t put a Rowntree’s Fruit Pastille in your mouth without chewing it,” I’ll wager that you can’t punt a BRZ through a corner without gunning it.

Niggles?  Well, tall drivers will find the handbrake makes getting in and out a little tricky.  And the throttle response is a touch too keen just off-idle to allow for smooth pull-aways until you’ve grown used to it.

The ride is definitely firm, but never harsh, so the BRZ could easily be a daily driver.  And although the rear seats lack any semblance of leg-room, the seat backs do fold forward to convert the 243 litre boot into a surprising 1,270 litres when loaded to the roof.

The Subaru BRZ is available in two grades, starting with the SE at £22,495 and rising to £23,995 for the Lux as tested here.  Compare that to something like a base Audi TT with similar performance (we’re talking 0-62mph in 7.6 seconds, a 140mph top whack) and the BRZ looks like a steal – and that’s before you’ve raided the Audi’s options list to build its spec up to match.

The driving experiences couldn’t be more different, either.  The Audi is all about grip (although you’ll need to fork out over £30,000 for the Quattro four-wheel drive models), whereas the Subaru is… well, deliberately untenacious.

And that’s what makes the Subaru BRZ a car worth getting up early for.

Update 3/9/2014: The entry-level SE model has since been reinstated to the BRZ range, priced at £22,495.  The price of the Lux model as tested was reduced earlier in the year, and this review has been revised to reflect that.

Base Price£22,495Price as tested£26,995 (now £23,995)
Engine4-cylinder ‘boxer’, 1998ccTransmissionSix-speed manual
Power200ps @ 7,000rpmTorque205Nm @ 6,400rpm
0-62mph7.6 secsTop speed143 mph
Economy40.9 mpgCO2181 g/km
Dimensions4240 x 1775 x 1425 (LWH)Weight1202 kg